Guest Spot: Town Board vs. Planning Board vs. Zoning Board

Recent News-Review headlines such as these have been striking: “Riverhead planners rebuke two Town Board requests, angering supervisor” and “ZBA ruling has Town Board scrambling.”

The supervisor’s warning followed: “If the Planning Board won’t do what the members of the Town Board request of them to do [sic], then the Town Board is going to have to seriously look at replacing Planning Board members, because they are not doing the will of the elected officials and the people.”

What’s happening here?

The Town Board appoints all Planning and Zoning Board members. Everyone knows that. But many — including some Town Board members — don’t grasp just how powerful these appointees are. Planning Board member Ed Densieski said, “They don’t have the authority to tell us what to do.” He’s right.

It’s no accident that state law gives these appointees terms longer than the elected officials who choose them. Or that the Town Board can’t remove members because they dislike their decisions, but only “for cause,” which sets a very high bar. Or that only one term on each board expires per year, making it impossible to “clean house.” Appointed members are clearly intended to be autonomous and beyond the reach of political pressure, so they can decide issues before them purely on their merits.

And yet the Town Board keeps trying to control them. Mr. Walter is reported as saying, “In my world, we’re the elected officials, but when we ask the Planning Board to do something, we sort of expect them to do it, because we’re the ones people vote in.” He also disagreed with his town attorney’s opinion, saying: “I do not want [the Planning Board] processing the application … until the Town Board interprets the covenants.”

The supervisor’s perspective is fundamentally wrong; these boards are empowered to proceed as they see fit. If appointees simply did the bidding of those in office, the boards would be superfluous.
The battles illustrate how crucial it is that those appointed to these key posts have useful experience, sound judgment and a commitment to enforcing our laws objectively. That raises another problem: the tone set by those doing the hiring.

The supervisor proclaimed at a public meeting: “I personally don’t like the master plan; I think it’s a load of crap.” There can be no doubt about his message to officials who will enforce that code, or about his inclination to appoint members that share his extreme views. Could we expect anyone appointed in this atmosphere to be an objective interpreter?

When the term of a highly experienced ZBA member — a career city planner — ended last year, Mr. Walter said he “wanted to go in a new direction with the ZBA,” choosing a replacement that “more reflects the ideas and values of this Town Board.” That new direction has consequences.

There’s also constant “tinkering.” Last year, the Town Board redefined “floor area” so developers can build bigger hotels while preserving less land. How? By not counting bathrooms, closets and hallways! The argument was “hotel rooms produce the revenue.” Mr. Walter observed developers were “not receiving a benefit” from those other things. (Would you stay in a hotel without them?)
And one Town Board member apparently wants to redefine dictionary terms, so the ZBA can allow an “accessory” use to be larger than a “principal” use.

Some taxpayers believe the Town Board isn’t really upset at the latest planning and zoning decisions, thinking it’s just useful to seem indignant at election time. “Planning committed a travesty!” — (wink).
I prefer to take people at face value. In any case, where we need unified agencies smoothly coordinating town business, we see constant infighting and chaos. There’s even been talk of more lawsuits, with one board suing another. At taxpayer expense. Swell.

Much has been written about a new house in South Jamesport, under construction for a year without required variances. Here, the planning department lost two court fights over a ZBA ruling, after which they and the town attorney faced off against the buildings department, which ignored both. As it turns out, that same project lacks wetlands and floodplain permits, too.

That brings us to the stepchildren of the planning and permitting process: the Conservation Advisory Council and the Landmarks Preservation Commission. No one bothers to consult the former and no one is obliged to listen to the latter. Both entities look good on paper, but they sometimes seem just for show — to give the illusion that the town favors landmarks and conservation. The record suggests otherwise.
This still-illegal house in South Jamesport is typical of the dysfunction our town is known for. Why not have a single agency or department responsible for ensuring that every project in town adheres to the laws on the books? Why not provide for enforcement, and accountability? It’s not that hard.

As for zoning — we labored for years, in an open and lawful process, to implement a plan to govern and guide future development. Anyone wanting to amend that plan should campaign openly and invite public participation. The “stealth” approach of disparaging the law, altering codes so they’re ineffective and trying simultaneously to stack boards with biased appointees while tying their hands so they have no freedom to act is reprehensible. We deserve better.

Recently, Town Board members saw a video promoting development in Brookhaven; the supervisor said he’d like to see Riverhead do the same. Sadly, local officials weren’t paying attention. The film narrator plainly stated “Brookhaven Blight” was caused by “haphazard zoning and a lack of code enforcement” and “unrestrained business development.” Those words precisely characterize what happens in our town. To avoid Brookhaven’s fate, we need government that respects and enforces the law.
Larry Simms is a principal in a commercial flooring technology firm. He owns a house in South Jamesport.